Q&A with Betty Ho and Roger Lee on Hong Kong Film Industry

The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Berlin (HKETO Berlin) co-hosted the opening reception of Five Flavours Asian Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland, on November 15 (Warsaw time). Photo shows from left: cinematographer Eric Tsang; film producer Roger Lee; the Director of the HKETO Berlin, Ms Betty Ho; director Cheung Yin-kei; and director Michelle Hung.

On the occasion of Roger Lee’s collaborations with Ann Hui and the screening at the Five Flavours Film Festival, supported by HKETO (Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office), film critic Panos Kotzathanasis speak to them about the Film Development Fund, the First Film Initiative, HK cinema in general, the film “Mad World” and many other topics.

Do you think that, with the financial, social and political changes taking place in the area, there is a chance for Hong Kong to reach the production levels of the 90’s, when nearly 300 films were made in a year? And if you think so, how much time do you think it will take?

Betty: Overall the situation now, in the 21st century, has changed significantly compared to the previous one, politically, but also economically and socially. For the film industry or the creative industries, there have been a lot changes in terms of both challenges and opportunities. Of course, in the 70’s and the 80’s, we focused on the production of movies in the traditional way. But now because of changes in technology and the availability of different forms of entertainment, digital information and content, the creative industry and also the people in the movie industry have changed the way they develop their ideas and productions. So, if I would try to summarize, I would say that nowadays people must be aware of how the environment has changed and at the same time what opportunities could be generated from these changes. So, if we compare, for example, the number of movies we used to have in the 70’s and 80’s with the productions currently, it would be a bit distorted, because now a movie can be generated in a number of other forms of production. I would say that today, the whole scene has changed in the sense that it is more diversified and there is a lot of experience that has not yet been used.

How does the government help, in that aspect?

Betty: The Hong Kong government is continuing to support and help the industry, mainly by helping newcomers and young people to join the industry and to nurture their talents. Because at the end of the day no matter what you are talking about, the core part is the availability of talent in that industry. That is why yesterday (the Five Flavours opening) I briefly introduced our scheme which was initiated in 1999, the Film Development Fund, which is basically used to help the production of small budget films. This is because these are the films that need more support. The second scheme that was introduced four years ago (the First Film initiative) is aimed at new directors who have not produced any commercial films more than 80 minutes long. So the ones who are eligible to apply are really new. With this particular scheme, we only require the applicant to submit to us a screenplay and a production proposal for the whole movie. If they are selected we would finance them to produce their first full movie. If you have the chance to go through this year’s Five Flavours program, they have picked “Mad World”, which is a film financed by the First Film Initiative.

I have met the director and I think they all appreciate this opportunity because, first of all, it is exclusively for new people and secondly because they don’t really need a lot to start with, all they really need is a script and a production proposal. The threshold of submitting a movie is not high, but at the end of the day if there are many who submit their films the really good ones will come out and that is our experience in the scene. Not only “Mad World”, but there is another film called “Weeds on Fire” about a baseball team of youngsters in Hong Kong, that also got very good results not only in terms of box office but also awards and nominations. This is an initiative to support the less privileged, the ones with fewer resources or less experience.

Roger:  After “Mad World”, a third film that is being financed by the first Film Initiative is “Somewhere Beyond the Mist”, directed by Cheung King Wai. Its first screening was at the Busan Film Festival and it is coming out soon. I am a friend of Cheung King Wai and he has been working on the film for quite some time. I believe he made 20 cuts before the final one. We are all waiting for the release of this film.

The government has been trying to help over the years in order to generate new opportunities. By this, I would say we are looking at it at a more macro level. One major change of Hong Kong from the 1980’s to now is the change in our sovereignty. In the old days we used to be a colony of the UK and since 1997 we have been part of China. This, for us, has created a number of changes in different aspects, but for the film industry we see this really good opportunity to have our films introduced to a much bigger audience, as compared to the Hong Kong audience (Hong Kong has a population of 7.3 million people but in China we are talking about 1.3 billion people, evidently a very big difference.)

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The good thing, also due to the economic growth in China over the last 20-30 years, is that now the middle class of China has increased in size and is more willing to spend money on entertainment, such as movies and going to the cinema. So this is very important for our film industry people because we can now produce movies for a much bigger audience meaning at the same time that more people will be interested in investing in movie production because the market is much bigger.

The Hong Kong administration has helped in that aspect by trying to enter into agreements with the government of mainland China to see how we can give better access to Hong Kong productions in the Chinese market. There are some restrictions in the Chinese market in terms of what kind of movies can be produced and can be shown. Because Hong Kong is regarded as a foreign entity we do have our own rules and policies, but at the same time, I think it is for our mutual benefit that while China wants to open up to the world they also want a platform to test this opening up. So in terms of, for example, the introduction of new movies in China, while Hong Kong is considered a foreign entity they also want to give some privileges to it because this is the “window” to introduce something different to the Chinese market.

So you consider this collaboration as an opportunity for HK films?

Betty: Yes, because under this agreement I have mentioned, CEPA (Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement), provisions include significant market liberalisation measures for Hong Kong’s audiovisual services industry including the production of television drama programmes. This is a very special arrangement between HK and China that allows our service professionals or industries, and of course, the movie industry is a very important one, to have much better access to the Chinese market. We have fewer limitations and we can co-produce our work with mainland producers. So, after these arrangements have been made what we have seen in the market is that there is an increasing number of co-productions between Hong Kong and China and Roger should be in a much better position to tell you many more examples. Furthermore, because of these co-productions opportunities, there are a lot more mainland Chinese investors coming to invest. That is why these days we see many more big-budget films because the market is bigger so investment interest is also greater and this is actually a cycle because many more people will go and watch these films because they are big budget and because their quality is guaranteed. So, we actually joke about how many actors we used on Hong Kong TV are actually working in China now because of these new opportunities and many co-productions with the mainland. In addition, the films are not just shared between Hong Kong and China. These movies, due to their quality, budget, and box office results, can be released globally or at least in more Asian countries, in Taiwan for example.

From the government’s point of view, the way to cope with the changes of the last 20 years is to firstly, help people to continue nurturing the talents through schemes. Secondly, since we need more opportunities regarding the market, so the government’s job institutionally is to open even more markets. In the end, the general trend is positive because the people in the creative industry stay very versatile and adapt easily to changes as there are always new opportunities. So the market is growing the industry is growing and we are not talking about a small market in Hong Kong but a bigger market covering the whole Hong Kong-China area.

How do you feel about “Mad World” being the official HK entry for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film? Do you feel it has a good chance of being shortlisted?

Roger:  No, no a very slim chance actually. The whole thing about the Academy Awards is that they are very political. Unless there is a distributor from the US to promote the movie and you spend a lot of money to promote the movie there is very little chance for the film to be shortlisted. Even for “A Simple Life” and “Summer Snow” (both films produced by Roger Lee and directed by Ann Hui), which were both selected from Hong Kong. For the latter, Miramax was distributing at the time but it did not make the shortlist. For “A Simple Life,” we did not have a US distributor and with no major Hollywood studio to promote the film there was no chance at all. For example, “Farewell my Concubine”, which was nominated at the end, was distributed by Miramax.

Which was the last success Hong Kong had in the Academy Awards?

Roger: The only success was Ruby Yang’s “The Blood of Yingzhou District”, which actually won the Oscar for Documentary Short in 2007. The story behind it is that the American network PBS helped with the promotion. So to answer again your question about “Mad World” we have a very slim chance, but we are hoping for a miracle.

In terms of participation and results, are you satisfied with the results of The Film Development Fund and the First Film Initiative?

Betty:  Especially for the latter, the results are better than expected because to us originally, it was a pilot. We were not sure whether the scheme would continue it all depended on the response. But since we have already seen very concrete results in terms of the response from the industry and the audience and film critics we have already decided to make this pilot into a regular scheme. So, in the government, obviously we are very satisfied with the results and that is why we have decided to continue with this approach. If the results continue to be as good we may even beef up our support on this front.

All of the films of the First Film Initiative are fully funded. We were surprised to see that even new directors with no previous experience were able to make such good movies. At the same time, I am very impressed by the support these films get from the experienced industry players, producers and actors, such as Eric Tsang in “Mad World”, who was actually willing to participate in a movie by a newcomer or a very young director. At the same time, this interaction and collaboration will be a very good opportunity for the new people involved in this project. That is why I say that the results are not just how many tickets we have sold. Of more importance is how young talent can be benefitted by these projects. We are all very satisfied and encouraged to see that there is such good talent in the field, but also that the industry is so supportive.

Roger:  The fund has another benefit that since the production costs are covered, filmmakers can take chances on their topics. “Weeds of Fire” is about a baseball team, and “Mad World” is about the mentally challenged. “Mad World” was actually a hot topic in Hong Kong, it featured on the front of newspapers for a few days and the theme of the film became a social concern for the Hong Kong people as it brought attention to the underprivileged. I think that was very important to make a movie about that subject. No company would dare to make a film about social problems otherwise. So, I was surprised that the box office results were great and actually increased each week. Schools would bring the students to see it, there were some communities that brought their participants to see the movie so it became a very important film for Hong Kong and that is why we have to appreciate what the Fund has done for the industry.

Betty: The film dealt with a real-life story about people whose lives are not appreciated by the mainstream community not just in Hong Kong, but also in the whole world. However, I am more impressed by the way the director tried to present the story. It looks simple but it touched people. As Roger said, this is not a very commercial film, we do not see a lot of commercial elements like violence and criminal or love scenes in the movie. Just a plain story about a son, a father and a mother who has died. By telling the story so plainly but realistically, Wong Chun managed the audience, and that fact shows the quality of the young director and the actors’ performances.

Roger: And they did very thorough research into the subject and actually had a social worker who was a consultant during the shooting. So the script was based on real people and real events which run parallel to the script of the movie. Everything was very authentic and that’s a very important part of the movie because it is almost a documentary about these underprivileged people.

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Despite all the aforementioned, the films that seem to be produced the most in HK are blockbusters. Why do you think that is?

They tend to be action movies, for the most part, not necessarily blockbusters like the few latest box office hits in China from Hong Kong like “Paradox” with Wilson Yip and “Chasing The Dragon” with Andy Lau and Donnie Yen. The audience in China like Hong Kong movies made by Hong Kong directors with locations in Hong Kong, with a Hong Kong flavour, but not necessarily blockbusters because “A Simple Life”, for example, was also popular in both Hong Kong and China. I believe if you make a movie in Hong Kong for Hong Kong subjects it appeals to the audience in China although the same applies to the works of some HK directors, like Tsui Hark, who shoot films in China with many special effects like the “Monkey King” movies or “Monster Hunt”.

Do you feel we will see again the likes of Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung?

It is hard to find younger actors in Hong Kong that can stand on their own at the box office. We are trying to promote younger actors, but it is difficult because, in China, the popular actors are mostly Taiwanese. Eddie Peng, for example, is quite popular in China and Wallace Hau also. But for Hong Kong actors, we are still looking.

How about filmmakers, is there anyone you feel that stands out?

Cheang Pou-soi, the director of the three Monkey King films, is quite good and Soy Cheang (SPL 2) and Derek Kwok (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) are both very promising.


Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic specializing in Asian cinema. He tweets @AsianFilmVault Image Credit: CC by Fraser Mummery/Flickr.

Ms. Betty (Siu Ping) Ho has held the post of Director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Berlin since 1 September 2014. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms Ho attended the Chinese University of Hong Kong from which she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1991. After graduation, she joined the Labour Department of the Hong Kong Government, where she served to promote employees’ rights and employer-employee relations.In 1996, she received a law degree from the University of London and joined the Administrative Service of the Hong Kong Government, which is a cadre of multi-skilled professional administrators who play a key role in the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. As a member of the Administrative Service, she was assigned to various policy bureaus and departments for wider exposure to major areas of Government services, including the Home Affairs Department (1996); the InformatioTechnology and Broadcasting Bureau (1998); the Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau (2000); the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in San Francisco (2004); the Labour and Welfare Bureau (2008); the Chief Executive’s Office (2011); and the District Office of Yau Tsim Mong (2012), before she was assigned to her current post in the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Berlin. During her service in these bureaus and departments, she was involved in policy formulation, resource allocation, implementation of major Government programmes, liaison with the media, and promotion of the interests of Hong Kong in other countries.

Roger Lee was an avid film buff from his school days in Hong Kong before immigrating with his family to the US at the age of 19 where he later started making short films. As a producer, he worked with the director Ann Hui three times – with “Summer Snow” (Best Actress award for Josephine Siao at Berlin IFF in 1995), “A Simple Life” (Best Actress award for Deanie Ip at Venice IFF in 2011), and “Our Time Will Come.” The script for “A Simple Life” was based on the true story of his maid who worked for four generations of the Lee family for almost 60 years. The rest of his work as a producer include “Red Cliff” and “Once Upon A Time in China”. His book “Taojie and Me” was published in 2012. His play “The Amahs” was produced by Hong Kong Arts Festival in 2015.


–This article originally appeared on China Policy Institute